Gerry Thornley: Better to find out about Ireland now in New Zealand than in France 2023

Golden tour of valuable learning opportunities could be the last of its kind

One-nil down in the Test series and two defeats into the tour, the Irish squad are cornered in New Zealand. The prospect of losing all five matches is now more real and there may yet be more collateral damage were there to be a repeat of some previous thrashings in this country.

Ireland need three seriously competitive performances and, ideally, one or two wins from the remaining two Tests and a second meeting with the Maoris before they return home.

Yet, in a curious way, the scale of the 32-17 defeat by the Maoris and especially the 42-19 loss against the All Blacks in Eden Park only re-affirmed the importance of this tour. Whereas France have taken a second string to Japan, Scotland, England and Wales - the latter wonderfully competitive in unluckily losing against a Springboks team which was locked and fully loaded - have taken on less exacting tours, Ireland have dived in at the deep end.

Having won 12 out of 13 matches prior to this tour, of which nine victories were at home, they could have gone to Japan and won two Tests, even with a second string team, and carried on serenely to next year’s World Cup with a misplaced and untested valuation of themselves, patting themselves on the back and perhaps believing they’re better than is actually the case.

By contrast, South Africa would have been hugely challenging, but touring New Zealand is the ultimate litmus test. This is not months away on tours to the southern hemisphere by sea as in the old amateur days, but bringing a squad of 40 players and taking on the All Blacks in a three-test series while augmenting this with two games against the Maoris is the ultimate examination of both the frontline team and Ireland’s strength in depth.

Ireland’s performances and results in the last 18 months rightly raised expectations to the point where winning a Test in New Zealand against the All Blacks and making another historic breakthrough after three wins in the previous five meetings, in neutral Chicago and Dublin (twice), was a viable ambition.

Ireland still have the second Test in Dunedin and the third Test in Wellington to achieve that ambition, while a second meeting with the Maori All Blacks now seems even more valuable after the defeat in the first clash. Losing one match against the Maoris would not have been especially revealing. But now that second clash this day week in Wellington will tell us much about Ireland’s depth chart.

This may not be a vintage Maoris’ team a la the Jono Gibbes, Carlos Spencer, Rua Tipoki class of 2005, but they are still a squad of frontline Super Rugby players. If second/third string Irish players cannot cut it against them, then they probably won’t be valuable to Ireland come the World Cup.

More than anything, as Andy Farrell keeps insisting, this tour is about unearthing four or five gems. That target looks ambitious after the opening two games, but Tom O’Toole’s career trajectory in recent weeks is very encouraging, not least the way he went 80 minutes against the Stormers for Ulster and against the Maoris before his cameo against the All Blacks. Whether it’s more games against the All Blacks or another start against the Maoris, O’Toole will benefit further from this tour, and tighthead is the area where Ireland are most in need of depth.

Kieran Treadwell and Gavin Coombes have looked the real deal. Maybe some of Joe McCarthy, Ryan Baird, Cian Prendergast, Nick Timoney, Ciarán Frawley, Harry Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien and others can still do so.

As is invariably the case, whenever Johnny Sexton goes off injured there’s the usual wailing over his age profile and Ireland’s dependency upon him. Yet it’s not Sexton’s fault that he’s a generational player, or the IRFU’s or the other outhalves. Even the All Blacks had a dependency upon Dan Carter for years. We should be grateful that he’s kept himself in such great nick.

Perhaps the wheels wouldn’t have come off to the same extent in the ten minutes after his departure last Saturday in the 31st minute. Would he have demanded the ball from Jamison Gibson-Park when the latter carried off an Irish lineout inside the 22 for Quinn Tupaea’s try?

But Ireland’s attacking shape remained impressive after Joey Carbery’s arrival. Two well-constructed tries were scored with Carbery at the helm. His touchline conversion was another reminder of how he has become a world class goal-kicker. Carbery looked composed in the country where he was born and, as was the case last November, he stepped into the breach impressively. This tour could be another invaluable investment in him.

More than the Six Nations in 2022 or 2023, or next November’s autumnal tests, this tour will reveal where Ireland truly are, and still need to reach in performance and personnel, in advance of next year’s World Cup.

That’s the real value of this tour. Better to find out now than in France 2023, for ultimately Ireland have to aspire to somehow break that quarter-final glass ceiling despite the toughest draw imaginable, and even aspire to win the next World Cup.

That is an incredibly high goal but why not shoot for the stars? Irish rugby has punched above its weight for 25 years but the standards of excellence, set primarily in Leinster and the international team, make it feasible to aim high.

Losing all five games may well make this tour a relative ‘failure’. But if Ireland ultimately come away empty handed from New Zealand they will need to ask themselves why they didn’t win a game and take on board invaluable lessons, and quickly.

But the bottom line remains; no other tour this summer could have been as informative as this one. World Rugby is close to finalising the new global calendar and an annual Nations League. Hence, in future and for better or worse, when Irish squads venture to the southern hemisphere for three summer Tests, there will be one or two-match stopovers, including a game against Fiji or Samoa or Japan, be it here, Australia and/or South Africa. There may never be another three-Test, five match tour in New Zealand by any individual European country.

This tour is probably the last of its type. Both in the aftermath of two defeats so far, and in the long run, and especially in the prism of next year’s World Cup, this tour is actually pure gold.

gerry.thornley@irishtimes.com